Aug 202012

By Lawrence Del Gigante, IPS News

A fisherman on the Si Phan Don riverine archipelago of the Mekong River. Credit: Courtesy of Suthep Kritsanavarin/OxfamA fisherman on the Si Phan Don riverine archipelago of the Mekong River. Credit: Courtesy of Suthep Kritsanavarin/Oxfam

NEW YORK, Aug 18 2012 (IPS) – The Cambodian government has committed to the construction of five dams along the Mekong River in order to meet a huge demand for electricity, but environmental groups warn that severe repercussions loom for this strategy. (…)

Hydroelectricity, even if a successful venture, will not solve the country’s electrification problems, other analysts say. “Right now it is relatively catastrophic, the power situation in the country,” Alexander Ochs, the director of climate and energy at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, told IPS. Cambodia has one of the lowest electrification rates in Southeast Asia, estimated at only 24 percent, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The government aims to raise the national electrification rate to 70 percent by 2020, according to the ADB, by expanding the grid and sourcing more than half of the needed electricity from the Mekong River. A large complication is transmitting the electricity, with only the major cities and surrounding areas having access to power lines, meaning people in rural areas will not benefit from the hydro.

“The number of people that are really connected to a grid as we know it, a modern power service or energy line, in rural areas is as little as seven percent of the population. Overall, nationwide, it’s about 15 percent,” said Ochs. Biomass is very popular for heating and cooking, predominantly burning wood for fires and stoves. “Everything else comes from off-grid or micro-grid diesel generators and this is very inefficient and very costly, a very expensive, very dirty way to produce electricity,” said Ochs.

Currently, 91 percent of Cambodia’s power plants are fuelled by imported light diesel and heavy fuel oil, not including the diesel it takes to fuel stand-alone generators. “All of this happens in a country where you have incredible renewable energy potential. It has amazing potential for wind, very, very good potential for solar,” said Ochs. Importantly, the solar potential in Cambodia is very high where it’s needed, including in the populated areas, meaning solar technologies can be installed domestically, such as solar panels on the roofs of houses, according to Ochs.

Solar technologies could provide off-grid communities with access to power as well as promoting clean energy in the country. However, solar technologies can be expensive, lack the reliability of stand-alone generators and often need constant maintenance. The situation is exacerbated by the presence of imitation solar products on the market, which often break easily, thereby diminishing consumer trust in the technology.

Cambodia’s potential for renewable energies exceeds many countries in the developed world, analysts say, and Cambodia is in a good position to create favourable economies of scale for renewable energies. “I wouldn’t argue for building a national grid, giant coal plants and importing coal, or developing only large hydro, as recent actions seem to suggest. Let’s work with the system as it is today, and develop distributed renewable solutions on the ground,” said Ochs.

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